Can A Bad Sequel Ruin A Good Movie? Yes, Yes It Can

Next week, Todd Phillips’ War Dogs will be released in theaters most likely somewhere near your home. (It’s a movie we’ve seen and will write more about next week.) It’s Phillips’ first film since 2013’s The Hangover Part III – which now has me thinking a lot about The Hangover movies.

For the most part, I like Todd Phillips’ movies. (Even though the only time I ever interviewed Phillips, for 2010’s Due Date, we got off to a rocky start.) This is mostly because he has a career arc I find interesting: There’s a real growth as a comedic director in-between, say, Old School and Starsky & Hutch. After that, he made a comedic almost-masterpiece with 2009’s original The Hangover.

What a double-edged sword that turned out to be: On a $35 million budget, The Hangover grossed nearly half a billion dollars. Half a billion! There was no way to avoid sequels. And I’m sure Phillips became a rich human being by agreeing to direct two more Hangover movies. And because of those two sequels, we now think of The Hangover series as garbage. And then, after we think that, we then remind ourselves, “Oh wait, you know, the first one is still really funny.”

Can a bad sequel ruin the original film? Using a purely literal definition: no. But can a bad sequel ruin how a movie is perceived culturally? You bet. The Hangover movies are a perfect example. If, right now, only The Hangover existed, we’d still be hailing it in “the best comedies of the last 10 years” lists. Now, if you put that on a list, a person would have to defend his or her choice. It would probably start with the line, “Now, forget the sequels…”

Bad sequels don’t always ruin a movie. No one mentions The Sting and then says, “Yeah, but The Sting II, oof.” (The Sting II, released 10 years after the original, features zero returning actors from The Sting. It’s basically The Bourne Legacy of The Sting movies.) And no one discounts the first two The Godfather films because The Godfather Part III was a misfire. (I do love that we consider a film nominated for Best Picture a “misfire.”) And even the Star Wars prequels didn’t completely tarnish the Original Trilogy.

This has to do with the fact these sequels (or prequels) all happened far enough away from their original films that we don’t lump them together. These films are outliers. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was made almost 20 years after the previous Indiana Jones movie. The other three are far too cemented as “good” for a fourth one to come along and ruin the others’ cultural impact.

Even the recent bad Die Hard sequels can’t tarnish the original. Die Hard 2 is a perfectly serviceable sequel that certainly didn’t help, but it didn’t hurt. And most people enjoy Die Hard with a Vengeance. By the time the fourth movie came along, the prior three had their place.

The Rocky franchise is strange. Only one of the movies, Rocky 5, is truly bad. But its sequels did somehow change our outlook on the original film: It shifted from a critical darling that won Best Picture, to the first installment in a series of big muscle action movies. So, the sequels didn’t turn Rocky into something we don’t like, but they did change our perception.